Saturday, June 10, 2017

The proof of the pudding

The 2015 presidential election had a great deal to do with ethnicity. It had a great deal to do with strategies and how the racial dimensions thereof could turn them into envisioned outcomes. That the movement which would later congeal into the Joint Opposition played the race card owing to stark disparities in voting patterns between the North and the rest of the island was only to be expected: they (the leaders of the movement) did it so well that even today, those who vouch for their cabal consider the election as one which conceded ground to separatists and devolutionists.

On the other hand, it’s always simplistic to attribute a given outcome, in a given context, to just one factor. The truth is that it wasn’t just race which trumped the Rajapaksa Regime: it was also age, economic status, and the proactivity of the opposition versus the complacency of the establishment. That latter point helps explain why certain supporters of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government didn’t go out to vote: they thought that with or without their support, he would win. He did not.

Hidden beneath all these, moreover, was the overriding dichotomy between a political populist on the one hand and a sober, yet rooted moderate on the other. This was supplemented by the kind of movements they led. The incumbent stood for continuity without change, while the contender stood for change with minimal continuity. Inasmuch as I don’t think that Maithripala Sirisena’s campaign seriously believed in implementing the sweeping reforms such a change required, I do believe that its rhetoric regarding that was essential in getting for itself the young, undecided voter.

Take all these out, though, and what do you have left? Barring the undecided youth bloc, whose preferred outcomes weren’t based on party colour, everyone else who voted fell into a politically partisan category. They were, in other words, members of that seemingly never-ending ideological rift between the SLFP and the UNP. It wouldn’t be until much, much later that this otherwise mundane rift, which had hitherto been pressured in because of the UNP’s losing streak, evolved into a more pernicious, economic, and downright classist political gulf.

Maithripala Sirisena led what could be called a popular mandate. It was popular in that it had everything a movement could have to clinch a victory. That it was colour-blind, or composed of a rainbow coalition, however, was a fallacy. It was a coalition, yes, but one that was doomed to dissolve into one colour after the fight was over. Predominantly, therefore, for then and now, it continues to be influenced by the key stakeholder of Sirisena’s mandate, the UNP. And to a considerable extent, the economic dimensions of that mandate are informed by the same.

The UNP of today is not what it used to be. By this I’m not bemoaning anything: the fact is that political parties evolve and indeed have to evolve. The problem with the UNP, however, isn’t that it has evolved. It’s the question of whether it has evolved to a movement that is congruent with the country, its people, its ethos, and its social and economic demographics. Before delving any further, however, I need to digress.

In 1958, a year which by all accounts spelt out the rise of left-wing politics and nonalignment the world over, a sociologist called Michael Young published a book. That book, titled The Rise of the Meritocracy, proved so controversial that critics and commentators either ignored it or lambasted it while forgetting that it was satirical. The political experience of the sixties and the seventies, the rise of Thatcherism and the concomitant “absenting” of the radical left in the Labour Party, and of course the empowerment of the right wing of that same party through Tony Blair, were all foretold so well by it, however, that Young was compelled to revisit it in a 2001 essay written to The Guardian with this rather prophetic observation:

It is good sense to appoint individual people to jobs on their merit. It is the opposite when those who are judged to have merit of a particular kind harden into a new social class without room in it for others.

Keyword: merit. My Webster and OED don’t yield a negative connotation of that term. Historically, it has always been synonymous with progress, mobility, and modernity. The reason why Young (who was involved heavily with the transformation of the Labour Party to a reformist movement) saw in it the seeds of future disparities between the have-dos and have-nots was that as much as it stood for everything taken as good in an economy, it tended to necessitate a gulf between a class which would harden and reproduce itself and everyone else who were defined as supporters and opponents of that class. It didn’t unify, in other words. It divided.

Young was correct. He was even more correct in what he implied: that once merit was made the cornerstone of an otherwise popular political campaign, it would constitute the thrust of that same campaign with respect to its financiers and shakers to such an extent that almost immediately after coming to power, its leaders would forfeit their populist avatar and embrace a more alienated (and alienating) platform. That is what happened with Tony Blair and that is what happened with Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga. Closer to the present, that is what is happening with the UNP.

The United National Party is composed of meritocrats. For the most. In a context where populists are making the waves and doing nothing, they are needed. A meritocracy that is cut off from the grassroots, that thrives on ideas and statistics as opposed to people, however, is not. Whether or not the UNP intends it, that is what its upper crust stands for and what its leadership affirms.

None of us could have foreseen it before the election, but barely two months after January 2015, it was becoming blatantly obvious that the UNP was being led by a horde of idealistic meritocrats who, unfortunately and despite their own intentions, stood for the kind of meritocracy which Young lampooned. It surfaced most discernibly before with that oft-quoted baiya-toiya dichotomy. It evolved later to the victories the UNP gained in the Uva election. The Old Guard had been challenged. The New Fleece wouldn’t be long in coming.

The problem with the January election was that this New Fleece got into power unelected. That is why the mandate the candidate-turned-president championed was, as we later realised, subverted. Whether or not it undermined the democratic process is for another debate altogether, but for the purpose of my column I will say this much: the shift from the populists to the elite (centred around Reid Avenue and Cinnamon Gardens) wasn’t accompanied by a concomitant shift in the elected leadership. In other words, the UNP subsists on a mandate they didn’t really win.

Revisiting Young might help here. In that 2001 article, he differentiated between Old Labour and New Labour on the basis of the childhood experiences and institutional affiliations of those who led if not membered them. “[Ernest] Bevin left school at 11 to take a job as a farm boy, and was subsequently a kitchen boy, a grocer's errand boy, a van boy, a tram conductor, and a drayman before, at the age of 29, he became active locally in Bristol in the Dock Wharf, Riverside, and General Labourers' union,” he wrote, contrasting him with the Blairs, the Browns, and the Milibands seeped in the Oxbridge Regency. This rift found an equivalent here after January 2015.

What’s ironic is that our political elite have been upended by their own self-contradictions. They knew they’d get into power, they spawned their own variant of meritocracy, but they wouldn’t have known about the enormity of the opposition against them. By that I am not trying to wish them away: I am merely pointing out that in a context where privileges bestowed by the fact of being members of schools, universities, and other cliques are being popularly repudiated (we don’t live in a Little England, after all), meritocracy hasn’t yet been rooted in the ethos of our people.

To this end, a sober reading helps. Here’s what Sarath de Alwis, no supporter of the previous regime, observed more than two years ago.

Sri Lanka is witnessing a constitutional experiment that is fast turning out to be elitist and exclusionary. A popular mandate seems to be dwarfed by an unelected Regency.

That unelected Regency, folks, is what has turned the rainbow coalition into an elitist outfit. It’s defined for the most by membership of the club that rallies around Reid Avenue and Cinnamon Gardens. The same club which, for the past decade, fed us the myth that we could end all our troubles by handing power over to an anti-populist elite. Well, two years are up, the country is still going (though barely), and all I can say with regard to it is that timeless adage, “The proof of the pudding is in the eating.”

Written for: Daily Mirror, June 9 2017